KUCHING: Shopping, sightseeing, savouring good food and having a whale of a time at the beach sounds like everyone’s idea of an ideal vacation, but a close to nature holiday may just make an invigorating difference. One can certainly find an abundance of verdant natural beauty, flora and fauna in Sarawak’s many parks and reserves.

In Sarawak, nature can be enjoyed in all its untouched glory. The entire state is an outdoor gem boasting 37 national parks, 14 nature reserves and five wildlife sanctuaries!

Less than two hours away by flight from Kuala Lumpur, Sarawak is easily accessible and inexpensive.

With so many nature reserves to choose from, Bako National Park is Sarawak’s oldest (it was opened in 1957) and is home to different types of vegetation such as a mangrove forest, swamp forest, dipterocarp forest, delicate cliff vegetation and more. There is a rich variety of wildlife there, and a coastline covered with beaches, coves and small bays.

Located 37km from Kuching, Sarawak’s capital city, Bako is home to all sorts of wildlife, some beautiful and some bizarre.

The park has 16 colour-coded jungle trails which offer walking and hiking options. You can choose to go on a full-day jungle hike or experience an overnight camping expedition. For the less daring, a walk in the forest is good enough to see some wildlife and a good and inexpensive way to reduce stress, increase feelings of happiness and be at one with nature.

As you take a leisurely stroll in the dense forest, you will come across the park’s star attraction, the proboscis monkey, an endangered species which can only be found in Borneo. Unlike its other cousins, this cheeky primate is easily identifiable by it’s rather unusual nose. The male has a bigger nose to attract the opposite sex.

Trekking further into the park, you will came across squirrels, lizards, birds, forest ferns, carnivorous pitcher plants and even bearded pigs, known as the Bornean bearded pig which is accustomed to humans and not bothered by their presence.

Continue your adventure at the Gunung Mulu National Park, about 558km away from Bako. Here you can see the mountain’s famous one-of-a-kind pinnacles — a series of 45-metre high, sharp limestone spikes that look as if they belonged on another planet. The imposing sandstone feature, which appears as if it’s guarding the verdant rainforest, makes Mulu a must-visit spot when in Sarawak.

The spellbinding rainforest is 60 million years old! It’s no surprise why the park is noted for being the most important nature reserve in Southeast Asia and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Area in 2000. The caves here are home to millions of swiftlets and bats.

The park houses the Sarawak Chamber inside Gua Nasib Bagus (the Good Luck Cave), which measures 600m in length, 415m in width and 80m in height, making it the largest cave chamber in the world. You would have to follow a river upstream from the cave entrance and this calls for some swimming plus a traverse along a ledge, all with the assistance of an experienced guide.

Said to be the second best cave experience after Mulu is the one at Niah National Park in Miri, where humans were reported to have begun existing some 65,000 years ago.

Located in Miri too is Lambir Hills National Park which boasts a number of waterfalls and bathing pools. It is a place for bird enthusiasts. You will be mesmerised by so many birds such as the Bornean Bristlehead, Banded Kingfisher, Large-tailed Nightjar, Crested Goshawk and the Rhinoceros Hornbill.

After spending a few days in the great outdoors, one can head back to Kuching via flight, which is the fastest option at about an hour.

One noteworthy aspect about Kuching is that it is both modern and quaint as it offers tourists contemporary comfort and convenience as well as the antiquated appeal of a bygone era. There are a number of fancy hotels and shopping malls in the city plus places of interest that are age-old but well-preserved. Jalan Padungan is a good place to buy souvenirs and enjoy the taste of Sarawak (try the savoury noodles like laksa Sarawak, kolo mee and belacan bee hoon).

From Kuching, head to Gunung Gading National Park in Lundu, about one-and-a-half hours away by bus, for a chance to see the rare Rafflesia flower. Timing and luck play a role in witnessing the flower as it takes nine months to mature while flowering takes between four and five days before it wilts and dies. Although the Rafflesia generally blooms throughout the year, November, December and January can be re

garded as the peak flowering season.

Next stop is the Batang Ai National Park, approximately five hours drive from Kuching. Here, you can learn about the cultural traditions of the Iban, one of over 27 ethnic groups in Sarawak.

Visit one of the longhouses built on stilts, the typical Iban abode which can accommodate up to 100 individual family units, and witness the tribe’s traditional ngajat dance. Garbed in pretty plumes, elaborate jewellery, and their bodies covered in intricate ethnic tattoos, the enchanting dance is quite like the movement of a bird.

The Ibans are proud of their native heritage and ever-willing to share their lifestyle with visitors. You can enjoy a hearty meal of their well-known manok pansuh, a chicken and lemongrass dish cooked in bamboo over an open fire.

Take on the Red Ape Trail, one of five trails at the park, to see the critically-endangered Bornean orangutan in their natural habitat. It takes a few hours of walking and waiting before you can catch a glimpse of the shy and semi-solitary animal but it is well worth the effort and patience.

Sarawak is a trip unlike any other. There’s nothing like breathing in the fresh air, travelling to the remotest of places where nature is at its wildest best, witnessing spectacular sights, meeting friendly natives and experiencing their culture first-hand.

It’s time to put such a trip on the bucket list!